WORDS • Jamesa Hampton & Nick Pascoe
PHOTOS • Charlie Murray & Matt Cherubino
What began as a relaxing weekend resort skiing in Wanaka, New Zealand, with our girlfriends quickly turned to custard as we found out a “once in a winter” weather window was approaching our hometown, promising cool but clear conditions to keep the recent snow crisp.
After a few phone calls, we had a team of six, our eyes on the prize of the highest peak in the Wanaka area, Tititea AKA Mt. Aspiring. The team we pulled together consisted of Hank Bilous, Jamesa Hampton, Fraser McDougall, Hamish McDougall, Charlie Murray and Nick Pascoe. Everyone already had their own commitments for the weekend: university, work, skiing or a romantic getaway. But this would all have to be crammed into half a day on a single Friday back in September. As long as we could make it up to French Ridge Hut on Friday night, we figured we’d be able to summit on Saturday and get back to the car on Sunday.
After sneaking in a half day warming up the legs at Treble Cone, we said our last apologies to our girlfriends and loaded up the truck. We were to meet Hamish, Hank and Nick, who’d spent the morning smashing out work, and Fraser was going to meet us at the hut after working a full day. Everyone arrived in the carpark in good time and we only passed through one sheep herd—a local version of a traffic jam—on our way up the Matukituki Valley.
We were hopeful to reach the hut around 8PM and things were going a little too smoothly until we did our final gear check. Ice axe, “check,” crampons, “check,” transceiver… welp, there was the hiccup. Jamesa forgot his transceiver, needed to head back through the sheep traffic jam to wait at the bottom of the Treble Cone road for some mates to finish their day skiing and drop off a transceiver. Two hours later, Jamesa was back at the carpark, transceiver in hand and the trip was off to a strong start.
The trek began as a relatively flat stroll up the valley to Aspiring Hut. The views were spectacular, a hoar frost covered everything; the Rob Roy glacier up one side and Mt. Aspiring looming intimidatingly in the distance, looking very far away. The temperature was so cold that our dangling drink bottles froze and, after we’d gone through the river crossing, it felt like walking with ice blocks as feet. Just as we got comfortable again, the easy walk quickly steepened into a slog up through the trees, our skis catching on just about every branch on the way up. Once more, the terrain changed and became proper rock climbing (in the dark at this point) with a 50-pound pack, and the extra steep sections the ice-covered rock made for a dangerous slip n’ slide if you placed a foot in the wrong spot.
Once we reached the top of the tree line, we convinced ourselves we were pretty much at the hut, but around every corner there were no lights to be seen and the final push wading through the snow took over an hour. Arrival time for the whole crew was between 10PM and midnight and all we cared about was firing up chicken teriyaki backcountry meals and jumping into our sleeping bags. The already-sleeping family of five must’ve been pretty confused when we crashed into bed; if they didn’t wake up, they might not have even known we’d been there. We were out of the hut long before the sun came back up.
Tucked up and cozy, the 5AM alarm came around all too soon and before we knew it, we were repeating last night’s regime, except this time we’d swapped boots for skis and beanies for helmets. The head torches were switched off just before we reached the Quarterdeck Pass and we managed to catch the perfect sunrise just as we got our first glimpse of the Bonar Glacier. The scroggin came out and we gave ourselves a few minutes to fill our mouths with that slow burning energy goodness and then kept moving. The decision was to continue up the ridge to Mt. French, and to ski some small lines down to the glacier to test the conditions. From there, we’d have a better view of Aspiring and we could plan a route up to the top.
What we found on Mt. French was nice, dry powder, which left Pascoe whooping and wooing the whole way down to the glacier. Hamish was the only one in the group to find variable snow and, in combination with the ever-classic move of forgetting his boots were in walk mode, he went tomahawking face first into the Bonar. The ropes came out, and we made our way across the glacier in pairs, staring Aspiring dead in the face.
Different ascent routes were discussed, but we were unsure of the conditions on the face and opted for the safest route, The Ramp. This turned out to be the right decision as we soon found ourselves cramponed-up wielding two ice axes to chop our way up the ice on the first steep section. It was a lot tougher than we’d expected and we were nervous at what we’d find higher up. Luckily, conditions improved slightly, but the ski down was still going to be marginal at best.
As we trudged our way to the peak, we felt our legs getting heavy and realized that this is probably one of the few places in New Zealand where you’re high enough to notice the oxygen thinning. This didn’t faze Charlie, our boot-packing machine, from ploughing his way to the top, miles in front of the rest of us. The top half of the ridge was, simply put, a slog, with consistent moderate pitch cramponing on the rime ice. We each got into our own rhythms and a version of “10 steps then one knee down for a mini break,” until we finally saw Charlie waiting for us from the top. We peered over the back for a moment and got a little jittery staring 3,000 feet straight down onto the glacier below, then stepped back to safety and took in the panoramic views of the Tasman Sea, the Southern Alps stretching out in both directions and our homes swamped somewhere beneath the inversion down in Wanaka.
We’re all skiers first and foremost and so at that point it should have finally been time for the fun part. But if you consider linking turns a pre-requisite, the top third wasn’t really going to make the grade, being more of a mix of hop turns between patches of semi-good snow and cutting off icy rime chicken heads while side-slipping down. Eventually, our ears got a rest from the sounds of metal edges scraping over ice and we got some good turns down to the top of our access route. Descending The Ramp was going to be the crux, and we wanted to try and find an alternate line that would let us ski clean and avoid having to down-climb the bottom section of ice. With some classic kiwi “she’ll be right” attitude, a mini misadventure began.
The snow turned from perfect, grippy chalk to blue glacial ice in the space of a few feet in our attempted descent route, and everything hit pause. The only sensible decision was to retrace steps, and patiently and calmly climb back out the dogleg couloir to the Ramp proper, where our optimism was finally rewarded with a slight variation that allowed us to ski safely all the way onto the glacier. Clear heads had won the day, and we all regrouped at the base of The Ramp for a much needed cup of the boy’s favorite rooibos tea. All of this unfolded amongst a stunning sunset where the face was bathed in soft light and the Tasman Sea began to glow, and then, with our hot cuppas in hand, it the sun completely faded and everything went dark.
Under the starlit sky we roped back up for a final push back across the Bonar Glacier to French Ridge Hut. Our beacons picked this moment to start peeping at us with a friendly reminder we’d been slogging it out for 12 hours, and still had a few more to go. So we put our heads down, went left-right left-right, and made it back to Quarterdeck Pass for our final transition. The relief levels were high as we clipped back into downhill mode, and that quickly turned to full stoke as we dropped elevation and the protected snow gave us creamy, torchlit pow turns all the way back to the hut. Emotions had been up and down all day, but those pow turns are why we all ski, and everyone got back to the hut with huge smiles on their faces and a solid sense of accomplishment.
Once we arrived in the hut we prepped some food and the day was topped off with some more rooibos, and a few nightcaps of wine; we all crashed out for some sleep before another sunrise departure. Charlie and Jamesa had, at this point, not seen their girlfriends since driving down for their romantic weekend and were just a little overdue for some of their planned quality time. So we made a quick departure, retraced our steps down the rocky bush bash and trudged out the final valley floor section. Some fitting and much deserved Speights beers—the “Pride of the South”—and choccy milk were waiting at the car, along with a complete sense of relief. Charlie and Jamesa managed 45 minutes in Wanaka with their girlfriends before departing for their five hour drive home. A rousing success all around.